Terminator 2 has some elements which binds it essentially with the 1990s. This includes the dysfunctional family, teenage rebellion, and violence– with a small moral caveat.
A Surrogate Father
Sent from the future to protect John, the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) comes to be a surrogate father for John Connor (Edward Furlong). Meanwhile, his mother Sarah (Linda Hamilton) is presumed to be insane due to her knowledge of the coming war between humans and AI. She is not good at moderating her views and explaining them to the uninitiated. Instead, she tends to scream at people about the coming apocalypse, which understanbaly leads them to assume she has schizophrenia.
In a conversation with the Terminator, John explains:
“Then she gets busted. It’s like, “Sorry kid, your mom is psycho, didn’t you know?” It’s like everything I’ve been brought up to believe was all made of bullshit. I hated her for that. But everything she said was true. She knew, and nobody believed her.”
In her absence, John comes to believe his life had been based on a lie, that the coming war with AI is something her mother imagined. He has become a rebellious teen with esoteric knowledge of military arms and hacking. Yet it stretches credulity to see the scruffy adolescent hack into an ATM, considering that he does not give the impression of someone with this type of technical knowledge. Rather, playing videogames is about the height of John’s intellectual activity.
Once John meets the Terminator, he knows his mom was always right. Whereas he previously felt a sense of betrayal, now he has renewed confidence in his mom and fully engages in the mission. His immediate mission is to stay alive so he can fulfill his fate as a future military leader against AI, with the knowledge that another terminator has been sent to kill him.
There is a dysfunction within the Connor family which resonated in the 90s: John is in a foster home, his dad is nowhere to be found, and his mom is crazy. Well, his dad is in the future–or something. As a result, John has a big chip on his shoulder, which he copes with by committing crimes, rebelling against society, and having a snide attitude–all of which Eddie Furlong conveys with great style.
After all, it’s not far from Furlong’s own dysfunctional childhood. Furlong was discovered for the role, having no previous acting experience. After doing a string of movies in the ‘90s following T2, his life was a downward spiral, battling drug addiction, alcoholism, and abusive relationships. Hopefully Mr. Furlong continues with his sobriety and gets better.
Back to the film: Only in this extremely fatherless situation could John Connor develop such an attachment to an AI robot (albeit a lovable one like the Terminator). Sara Connor realizes, ironically, that the Terminator is a better father figure for John than any other she might have tried to provide for him, as she watches them do some mechanic work together in a mimic of father-son bonding.
This is why it is so traumatizing for John when the Terminator must sacrifice himself, Christ-like, in the conclusion of the film. Having been abandoned many times, John suffers again. The Terminator tells him:
“I know now why you cry. But it’s something I can never do.”
He learned, and their connection was real, but they must let go.
“You Could Be Mine”
When John Conner sets out on his motorbike, we hear Guns n’ Roses’ first single from their Use Your Illusions double album, “You Could be Mine.” The first snippet of the song plays from a boombox as John is revving the engine of his motorbike in the garage. His foster parents hector him to get back in the house, establishing their utter lack of rapport as a “family.” In the background we hear Axl sing part of the first verse:
“I’m a cold heartbreaker fit to burn
And I’ll break your heart in two
And I’ll leave you lying on the bed.”
John’s Foster-father comes out and calls to him:
“Come on and get inside. Do what your mother tells you.”
“She’s not my mother, Todd.”
Then John and his friend hit the road, and “You Could be Mine” continues. Axl Rose screeches a high note, as John Connor’s red-headed headbanger friend holds on in back. The wailing of Axl Rose’s high-pitched voice resonates as the engine revs. Eddie Furlong’s famous bangs are swept to the side by the wind, in an iconic moment of 90s cinema, and ‘90s culture more broadly. It’s a high-testosterone climactic moment in the classic film.
GNR is a staple of teenage rebellion and defiance against authority figures, foster parents perhaps being the archetypical malevolent authority figures (which is not to say this reflects on actual foster parents doing a good job!). It’s hard to understand in our fragmented pop-culture today the extent to which Guns N’ Roses and similar bands represented a shocking, yet aesthetic departure from mainstream, traditional America in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
The appearance of the song in the film is somehow more dynamic than the song’s official music video, which features Axl in an increasingly bizarre get-up: white spandex biker shorts, a purple leather jacket, and Doc Martens. But hey, it was the 90s and Axl was adapting in his own way. With that said, the beginning of the GNR video is classic: The Terminator wades into the crowd at a GNR concert, with his trademark deadly determination. “Decibel Overload,” his AI complains of the concert.
After the show, the Terminator faces the Guns n’ Roses team in the street, identifying each band member. Slash comically stumbles towards the Terminator and smiles. The rest of the bad affect their best scowls. Finally, when the Terminator identifies “W. Axl Rose,” his AI concludes, “Waste of Ammo.” Axl and Arnold exchange a smirk and music and film history is made.
Finally, there in the mall scene of T2, Schwarzenegger carries a rifle in a flower box with a rose, a deft use of symbolism to pay homage to the band for lending their song. This scene appears in the video too, just in the case the theater audience might have missed it.
Sarah Connor decides that the best move is to try to assassinate Dyson, the creator of Skynet, a technological genius who happens to be African American. Her epiphany is that she can change fate, and so promptly drives off on this mission, leaving John feeling abandoned once again. The repeated abandonment and family dysfunction, once again, makes Terminator 2 relevant to the cultural milieu of the 1990s.
This is meant to be the deep philosophical undergirding of the otherwise sensational film apparently. After all, this isn’t just an action flic, but also a sci-fi flic; and we therefore reflect on humanity and our future with technology. The premise of their mission, that AI tech can be halted, seems unrealistic; but let’s leave that to the side.
Killing the Skynet scientist is logical. Yet John has a deeply moral problem with killing in general. This doesn’t seem particularly consistent with the rest of his character, which is a rebellious, amoral teen. At any rate, Sarah gets to Dyson’s house first. After shooting up his office, entering the house and calling his wife a bitch, she points a gun at Dyson, declaring, “This is all your fault.” John and the terminator show up soon after and deescalate the situation. They convince Dyson to join them in their quest to halt the advancement of AI.
John’s directive to the Terminator not to kill anyone gives the film a bit of a moral dimension in an otherwise violent film. Typical of action movies, Terminator II goes overboard in terms of car chases (or motorcycle or semi truck chases) with an overload of explosions and shooting–much of which is futile given the nature of T-1000, an “advanced prototype” terminator which is “liquid metal.” At some point, we get it–there’s no need to repeatedly shoot the T-1000 and show the cool special effect of him getting his shape back after briefly being slightly flummoxed by the bullet impact. It’s almost as more time is spent on chase scenes and shoot outs than delivering expository information of the actual story.
The Terminator as a Symbol of Masculinity
That said, Arnold Schwazenagger is a genre defining action hero, and his one-liners and fight scenes still feel fresh decades later. Even his look seemed to redefine “cool” for the decade. Schwzenagger’s trim haircut and sunglasses influenced men’s fashion. For his part, Eddie Furlong solidified the skater look for a generation, with his long bangs artfully falling on his face at the right moment, loose olive army-style jacket and backpack.
It’s not just Schwazenneger’s signature lines. When he says, “I’ll be back,” a line which has become so iconic, it almost seems as though we have elevated in our collective memory to the point where the actual line being delivered feels anticlimactic. It’s not just his strength and masculine energy. As Hollywood Reporter wrote, Schwazenegger’s “comic sense” is his secret weapon.
As a jacked robot, the Terminator is like the ultimate expression of masculinity: all logic through its programming, zero empathy. For example, when he realizes the T-1000 is imitating John’s foster-mother over the phone, he hangs up, and in a deadpan tells John:
“Your foster parents are dead.”
That the terminator learns is what gives him a character arc. He learns to use the slang John teaches him, to such memorable cinematic effect (“Hasta la vista, baby.”) But his natural inclination is to carry out his mission with extreme indifference to human suffering or even death. When he is corrected on this ruthlessness by John, he literally interprets his new instructions by instead shooting cops in the leg (just like anti-police protestors insist cops should do).
The other Terminator films (including the first one) lack the chemistry of these three actors: Schwazenegger, Hamilton, and Furlong. That’s what makes Terminator 2 special.
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